18 Mar 2016
BBC historian Clare Jackson discusses the life and legacy of one of England's most flamboyant monarchs
by Clare Jackson
Charles II has always been one of England’s most instantly recognisable monarchs. Standing at 6 feet 2 inches, he towered over most contemporaries and his flowing dark ringlets and sumptuous Cavalier costume renders his distinctive image a byword for the Restoration’s flamboyant court culture, lascivious lifestyle and theatrical productions.
Charles was certainly a king with ‘star quality’. But he was also a man who had experienced traumatic upheaval in his early life and, during the civil wars, saved his life precisely by disguising his royal majesty and posing as a humble servant.
In 1651, he spent 43 nights ‘on the run’ across southern England, fleeing from the same Parliamentarian army that had executed his father, Charles I two years earlier. Spending more than a decade in foreign exile while the Cromwellian republic flourished in England, Charles became an instinctively guarded and secretive political operator, later described by Gilbert Burnet as having ‘the greatest art of concealing himself of any man alive’.
Luckily, however, his Restoration as king in 1660 coincided with the start of the best-known diary in the English language – that of Samuel Pepys – whose insatiable curiosity and flair for detailed description introduced not only Charles himself, but also the dramatic events of Plague, Fire and naval defeat in the 1660s, to generations of fascinated readers.
Charles was a keen sailor and impressively knowledgeable about naval and maritime affairs. In 1675, he founded the Royal Observatory on Greenwich Hill, hoping its astronomers would obtain observations that could determine terrestrial longitude and thereby equip the Navy’s ships with better celestial charts. At the outset of the Restoration, Charles also ambitiously envisaged building a new palace in Greenwich as an impressive ceremonial venue to meet foreign dignitaries before escorting them upriver to London.
Although this project was later abandoned, Charles’s keen involvement in the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire in 1666 enabled him to assume the role of the nation’s architect, rebuilding his kingdom both physically after the Fire and metaphorically after the destruction of the civil wars and republican interregnum.